Jesus overcame the temptations in the wilderness. He made it possible for us to overcome our temptations. Be like Jesus and just say no.
Does that sound familiar? I wonder if that’s how we often hear today’s gospel (Luke 4:1-13). I’m guessing most of us know the just say no story or some variation of it. Maybe it’s what you were taught or have come to believe. I think it’s often a theme underlying Lent and a common approach for dealing with temptation in our lives. Just say no and if you can’t then try harder.
Is it really that simple? Is that all there is to this story? By now you probably know me well enough to know that if I am asking those questions I don’t think it is; and you’re right, I don’t. It certainly hasn’t been in my life, I don’t think it was in Jesus’ life, and I suspect it’s not in yours. Our lives and our faith are more than the sum of our choices, and our temptations are rarely a simple choice between this or that. So I want to think out loud and consider a different way of seeing temptation.
- What if temptation is more than a yes or no question to be answered?
- What if temptations are not a pop quiz from God testing our love and devotion?
- What if temptations are more about our learning than God’s score keeping?
- What if our response to temptation is more about a diagnosis than a judgment?
- What if temptation is necessary for our salvation, wholeness, and restoration?
- What if instead of only asking what we will do with our temptations we also asked what we are willing to let our temptations do with us?
- What if, get ready for this one, what if temptations are the disguises for the good the devil unwittingly does?
Have you ever thought about temptation in those ways? I know that’s not the usual perspective but it offers a different way of engaging life and our faith. It tells a very different story about temptation than the just say no story but it neither changes nor distorts the story of Jesus in the wilderness. It is the story of Jesus in the wilderness. That becomes more clear when we see what comes before and after today’s gospel. The baptism of Jesus is the story immediately before today’s gospel. Jesus’ ministry in Galilee and his teaching in the Nazareth synagogue is the story immediately following today’s gospel. I want us to see and consider temptation, Jesus’ and our own, in light of that pattern; baptism, wilderness, public life and ministry.
Jesus went to the wilderness immediately after having been baptized (Luke 3:21-22). Remember what happened at his baptism? The heaven opened, the Spirit descended, and the Father declared, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” The Father claimed and identified Jesus as his own, just as he does at each of our baptisms.
After his baptism Jesus entered the wilderness with the Father’s words echoing in his ears. His identity and relationship with the Father were a given before he went, even before he faced or responded to the first temptation. Whether Jesus said yes or no did not determine his sonship, his belovedness, or that God was well pleased. They already were the reality. Jesus could neither earn them nor lose them, and neither can we.
The temptations and struggles in the desert, did not determine how God would see Jesus but how Jesus would see himself. “If you are the Son of God,” began the devil’s temptation of Jesus. It was less a yes or no question about making bread and more a question of Jesus knowing himself, and knowing for himself.
In struggling with his temptations Jesus began to know himself to be filled with and led by the Spirit. The truth of his baptism and the truth of his Father’s words were confirmed through his temptations in the wilderness. That truth no longer echoed in his ears but in his heart, in the depths of his very being.
The temptations called forth in Jesus the confirmation of his baptismal identity and it was that identity by which Jesus overcame the temptations. The devil failed but “he done good.” The devil had unwittingly tempted Jesus into knowing and experiencing the truth about himself; his sonship, his belovedness, and his Father’s pleasure. Jesus’ identity and relationship with the Father were no longer only words spoken from heaven but a truth and reality experienced in the wilderness, a truth and a reality Jesus would speak to the people of Nazareth.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” After his time in the wilderness Jesus went to the synagogue in his hometown, Nazareth, and read to the people from the prophet Isaiah beginning with those words and finishing by telling them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:14-21). This is Jesus’ self-understanding and it was formed by the temptations and his wilderness experience. He is telling the people of Nazareth who he is and what he is about. A couple of weeks ago I called this the politics of Jesus, his identity and mission, the direction and work of his life. Temptations teach us that about ourselves.
Our temptations, struggles, and wilderness experiences offer an opportunity to become more whole, more integrated, more fully ourselves. That’s what they did for Jesus and it’s what they can do for us. The desert monks certainly saw it this way. St. Antony the Great, sometimes called the father of monasticism, goes as far as saying, “Without temptation no one can be saved” (St. Antony 5).
We tend to focus on the person, thing, or situation that is tempting us but it’s really about us. Our temptations say more about what is going on within us than what is happening around us. That’s why just say no is an overly simplistic understanding of this gospel and an inadequate response to temptation. Temptation is less about a choice and more about our identity and direction in life.
Who am I? Where is my life headed? We answer those questions every time we face and respond to our temptations. We face ourselves and learn the ways in which our life has become disfigured and distorted, disconnected from the original beauty of our creation and the transfiguring presence of God. The type of temptations we experience and the circumstances by which they come are unique to each one of us because they reveal what’s inside us, what fills us. That means that whatever fills us, whatever is going on inside us, is manifested as and triggered by the external circumstance of temptation.
Jesus, Luke says, “was full of the Holy Spirit.” That’s for us to know as we read and hear the temptation story but it was for Jesus to discover as he lived the temptation story. Temptation offers us something to be discovered and the opportunity to recover ourselves. So let me ask you this, and I mean it in the best sense, what are you full of? What fills your life?
Look at what tempts you. What causes you to stumble and fall? What distracts you? Who are the people that push your buttons? Where do you get caught and trapped? What circumstances call forth a response other than the one you’d like it to be? This is not about the people, situations, or things. This is about you and discovering what fills and directs your life. What’s going on in you? What do you see?
Regardless of what you see there within you, it’s just information, a diagnosis. It’s not a final judgment, a conclusion, or your grade on God’s final exam. We don’t pass or fail our temptations. We learn the truth about how we see ourselves. We learn the truth about the direction our life is headed and who we are becoming. This learning is neither easy nor pain free but it is the necessary learning by which God reshapes and redirects our life.
So what if this Lent we follow our temptations? I don’t mean we just say yes and give in to them. And I don’t mean we just say no and turn away from them. What if we follow the learning they offer us? Where would they take us? What would they give us? They would give us back ourselves. They would return us to the truth of who we are, daughters and sons of God, beloved children, with whom he is well pleased. That’s the gift of temptation and the good the devil unwittingly does.